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The chicken, the egg, and Brett Connolly

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Does a player earn his offensive usage? Or does offensive usage make the player?

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

With Teddy Purcell shipped out to Alberta, there had to be a new flashpoint player for fans of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Oh, hi, didn't see you there Brett Connolly.

Steve Yzerman's first ever draft pick with the Lightning has drawn a lot of criticism after just three games, where he's scored one goal averaging just about 10 minutes of ice time per game. For all the talk of Connolly "floating" or "being invisible" or "not getting his name mentioned", the same could easily be said for his linemates, Brenden Morrow and Brian Boyle, who similarly have had very little impact at 5v5 for the Lightning.

The difference, then, is expectations. They tend to be lower for guys like Boyle, and Morrow, who were expected to be role players for the Bolts this year. Connolly, as a 6th overall draft pick and top AHL scorer, is expected to offer and contribute more than a mere role player. But how can he, when he's used like one?

As a Raw Charge regular pointed out:

Over the course of the Yzerman era in Tampa Bay, promising young forwards have come up to the big club and experienced favorable offensive usage. Last year, it was Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and Richard Panik. The organization even admitted keeping those three for chemistry purposes even in spite of a terrific showing in training camp from Connolly. But Connolly, unlike those three, has never been given an extended look as a top-9 NHL winger with an offensive center, at least not since his rookie season when he was kept in Tampa Bay only to prevent him from going back to a putrid Prince George squad in the WHL. He barely played 100 5v5 minutes last year, bouncing up and down the lineup. He spent some minutes at center. And so far in 2014-15 most of his ice time is with Brian Boyle and Brenden Morrow, playing 4th line minutes again and not getting an opportunity to provide the offense he's shown he's capable of in the AHL and in preseason action.

The common refrain is that offensive usage must be earned, not merely given -- but the Tampacuse guys from a year ago got a much larger chunk of games with each other before demotions were eventually made (Richard Panik to Syracuse, then the 4th line, then waivers, where he was claimed by the Toronto Maple Leafs). You'll recall that Calder Trophy finalist Ondrej Palat did most of his scoring after New Year's, after the Steven Stamkos injury, after a long period playing on a third line with Tyler Johnson. Connolly spent barely a period this year with an offensive-minded center before getting swapped with J.T. Brown, reuniting Syracuse's top line from the first month of the 2013-14 season.

That's all well and good, but consider this: J.T. Brown is a high-motor, try-hard player who gives you the same results no matter who you play him with. He's going to fly around, play physical, dig out pucks, and generally be a pain in the ass on the forecheck. That's his game, and he'll give you that no matter where you put him or who you put him with. So why not go for the net positive of putting him on the 4th line -- where his game will be the same -- and just see what happens if Brett Connolly gets a chance with a playmaker like Vlad Namsestnikov, or, (gasp!) Valtteri Filppula? Sure, you want Connolly to play well no matter who he's with. But if you're getting Brown's A game with anyone, and you can get Connolly's A game by simply giving him better linemates, don't you do it? Is this about giving the team the best chance to win, or rewarding subjective assessments of intangibles like effort?

So is it the chicken, or the egg? How can he earn more minutes if he's not being put in situations that optimize his skillset? He's got a lot of tools, which he's shown in the AHL. He might not be as dominant an offensive force as Tampa Bay had hoped when they drafted him sixth overall, but he's quick and decisive through the neutral zone and has shown some finishing ability, to the tune of 52 goals in 137 AHL contests. His scoring rate in the AHL is comparable to other Syracuse graduates -- in fact, it's better than all save for Tyler Johnson. And, if you look closely, the real difference between Brett Connolly and the other Tampacuse guys (save Richard Panik) is just bad shooting luck:

AHL PPG NHL PPG NHL Career TOI/Game NHL Career PDO
Brett Connolly 0.875 0.206 11:26 971
Tyler Johnson 0.970 0.575 17:57 1030
Ondrej Palat 0.700 0.653 17:10 1042
Alex Killorn 0.814 0.487 16:47 1005
J.T. Brown 0.593 0.281 13:04 981
Richard Panik 0.726 0.285 12:05 970

Judging based on AHL scoring prowess alone, Connolly is second only to Tyler Johnson. But, like Richard Panik, he's found himself on the fringes and become an oft-criticized player for perceived laziness. But don't conflate lack of good process with lack of good results -- Connolly's career 971 PDO in the NHL, like Panik's, suggests that he hasn't been getting bounces he probably deserves based on his AHL track record.

The time on ice is also especially damning; which came first, the terrific on-ice save and shooting percentages, or the significant bump in ice time for Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson?

Ultimately, success in the NHL -- in any sports league, really -- is just as much about opportunity as it is ability. And, contrary to what you might think, Brett Connolly is still waiting for his.